Although the risk of dementia increases as people age, it is not a normal part of aging and does not always occur as people get older. Many people experience forgetfulness and slowed thinking as they age, but it may not always be a sign of dementia. It can be useful to understand the difference between signs of dementia and normal aging to know when to seek professional help.
The different types of dementia can cause slightly different symptoms, depending on the part of the brain that becomes damaged, but most types of dementia cause similar symptoms, affecting memory, speech and language, and concentration, as well as sometimes causing movement difficulties and changes in mood and behavior .
Typically, signs of dementia will start gradually, becoming increasingly worse with time and having increasing impacts on daily functioning .
Difficulties with decision-making and problem-solving
Changes in mood and behavior
Issues with mobility, such as stiffness, slowed movements, and trouble walking
Most types of dementia are more likely to occur after the age of 65, with the risk increasing steadily with age . However, dementia is not a normal part of aging, and many people do not experience any signs of dementia as they age, continuing to experience normal or only slightly impaired cognitive functioning throughout their lives .
What are the signs of normal aging?
It is common for people to experience changes in their cognitive abilities as they age, as our brains and bodies go through the normal aging process .
Even the healthiest individuals can experience moments of forgetfulness or confusion, and while this may be frustrating, it does not greatly impair functioning in daily life, professional performance, or interpersonal relationships in the same way that symptoms of dementia can .
Occasional forgetfulness, such as misplacing items, forgetting the name of someone you knew years ago, or walking into a room and forgetting why you’re there.
Needing reminders for appointments and activities and taking a little longer to recall information.
Occasionally getting distracted from a task by something else or losing focus on a specific task.
Sometimes struggling with multitasking and keeping track of several things at once.
Dementia vs normal aging: Examples
The following table includes examples of what could be considered a sign of dementia compared to what is likely a sign of normal aging.
The signs of dementia can vary from person to person and between the different types of dementia, so the following examples may not always occur, or might be to a differing degree of severity . Similarly, other signs of dementia can occur that are not listed below.
Some of the following signs of dementia could also occur in the context of a different condition entirely, such as depression, psychosis, and other mental health disorders, certain medical conditions, and other types of cognitive impairment that do not classify as dementia .
As such, if you experience any of the listed signs of dementia, seek professional advice to receive an appropriate and correct diagnosis.
Sign of dementia
Sign of normal aging
Repeatedly asking the same question after forgetting the answer each time.
Being unable to remember a recent event, piece of information, or conversation, regardless of any hints or reminders.
Forgetting the name of family members or close friends.
Regularly misplacing items, or putting things where they don’t belong, such as the TV remote in the fridge.
Occasionally forgetting a recent conversation or piece of information, but then being able to recall it after a short time or with a reminder.
Being unable to remember something from a long time ago, such as forgetting an old password or the name of a teacher from your school days.
Sometimes misplacing items but being able to find them by recalling recent movements or actions to the place the item was last seen.
Regularly forgetting words and using replacement words.
Saying incoherent phrases or sentences.
Being unable to maintain focus on a conversation or understand others when they speak.
Occasionally forgetting a word or losing focus in a conversation, but generally being able to communicate effectively.
Planning and decision-making
Being unable to make plans or complete a task without confusion, difficulty, or distraction.
Making mistakes or poor decisions around money or safety, such as spending a lot of money without careful consideration, being unable to manage a budget or monthly bill payments, or going out for a walk at night in pajamas or clothing unfit for the weather.
Sometimes getting confused or distracted when attempting to complete multiple tasks but having little issue with completing a single task.
Sometimes forgetting to pay a bill or making a rash decision but being able to maintain a budget and maintain personal safety.
Orientation to time and place
Regularly being unsure of the day, month, or even year.
Losing track of time, such as thinking that something happened recently that really happened years ago.
Becoming confused or lost in familiar or new environments and not knowing how to find out where to go.
Occasionally forgetting the day or date but having a general idea or remembering shortly after.
Getting lost in new environments but figuring out where to go without much issue.
Generally unable to learn and retain new information, facts, names, or how to use items.
Impaired understanding of previously familiar knowledge, such as losing the ability to use a familiar item or complete a familiar task.
Generally being able to learn and retain new information but taking slightly longer to formulate a clear understanding.
Severe changes in mood that seem out of character or sudden, which may include periods of feeling very sad, anxious, afraid, irritable, or agitated.
Occasional mood changes that may be considered normal or due to a specific circumstance or trigger.
Behavior changes such as social withdrawal, being unable or unwilling to enjoy activities or hobbies, and becoming suspicious of others.
Behaving inappropriately, such as swearing or gesturing in a certain way, or making rude jokes, while not being aware of the social or emotional consequences of these actions.
Sometimes choosing to miss events or social gatherings but still regularly engaging in social interactions and behaving appropriately.
When to seek treatment
If you are experiencing any of the above warning signs and are concerned that they could be related to dementia rather than normal aging, it is advised to seek professional advice as early as possible . A doctor can help you to determine if these signs are due to dementia and provide an appropriate diagnosis and treatment plan for you.
Although there is no cure for dementia, there are various treatment options that can help to reduce the severity of your symptoms and help with living with dementia. Treatment for dementia may include :
Medication: Medications such as cholinesterase inhibitors and memantine are often prescribed to help reduce the symptoms of dementia and improve quality of life. Antidepressants may be prescribed to help manage emotional distress that can occur with dementia.
Therapy: Talking therapy can be useful in the earlier stages of dementia, especially cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), as it can provide a better understanding of the condition and symptoms, coping strategies to help manage emotional distress that may arise, and support to people and their families who are dealing with a dementia diagnosis.
Care: In the later stages of dementia, daily functioning may become more challenging, so support may be required, either in the home or in a facility, to manage certain aspects of daily life such as eating, bathing, dressing, and movement.
Self-help: Maintaining a healthy lifestyle can help to prevent a worsening of dementia-like symptoms, improve physical wellbeing, and maintain brain health. Healthy lifestyle habits include eating well, getting enough sleep, exercising, and avoiding alcohol. Cognitive activities, such as word puzzles, can also help to keep the brain engaged and challenged, potentially reducing cognitive decline.
Naomi is a qualified Mental Health Nurse, with several years of experience working in hospitals with people of all ages and a variety of mental health conditions. She now uses that experience to help spread awareness and information.
Published date: 05 May 2023, Last edited date: 18 May 2023